I’ve been a fan of PJ Harvey’s music ever since hearing the first John Peel Session in 1991, almost exactly 20 years ago. I bought the first album, “Dry”, released early the following year, and every subsequent one, up to “Uh Huh Her” in 2004. The next one, released after a long, three-year gap, was “White Chalk”, and I didn’t buy it. The music just didn’t move me.
I was OK with that. Creative musicians must change and evolve, and if Harvey’s path had diverged from mine, that was just proof that she was still moving, unlike many successful musicians whose music fossilizes into a pale recreation of their glory days. I wished her well.
There was an even longer pause before the release of the most recent album, “Let England Shake”, and again, it was very different: more change and evolution. This time, I didn’t dislike it. Nor like it. I just didn’t know. The music is complex in a way, although not “difficult”, like, say, some off-the-wall jazz might be. The themes in the lyrics include the horrors of war and the contradictions of nationalism: a serious work.
I bought the album, but I confess that it wasn’t because I’d made my mind up that I needed it. It was on special offer at HMV. I brought it home and listened to it straight through three times, and still couldn’t decide. It was rich, complicated, passionate and full of musical creativity. Maybe too much so for my primitive music brain, but in the long run, I think the recording might come to mean a lot to me.
Anyway, if you haven’t heard, last night the album was awarded the Mercury Prize for best British (Isles) album of the past year. So that’s settled then.
Excuse me for my sarcasm. Unlike the confusion I have about the album, I have no problem at all deciding what I think of the Mercury Prize. It’s a worthless sham, a scam perpetrated on the music-listening public. The very concept of a “best” album is ludicrous — completely indefensible by any standard of logic.
The Prize was set up in 1992 by the British Phonographic Industry and British Association of Record Dealers with the objective of boosting music sales in the slack Summer months. The MD of the Virgin Records chain got sponsorship from the Mercury telecommunications company (since defunct), and the prize was named in their honour. The name has been retained, even though sponsorship has changed four times. Barclaycard has been the source of funding since 2009.
The objective of stimulating sales may or may not work. Certainly, the sales of shortlisted albums increase, particularly if they aren’t by already-successful artists. But I wonder if it’s not a zero-sum game, with sales increases matched by decreases elsewhere. There’s no way to tell from the stats. Notoriously, the award of the prize itself is no guarantee of major sales. While sales of last year’s chosen album, “xx” by The xx, went through the roof (going platinum), the previous year, Speech Debelle’s “Speech Therapy” performed conspicuously badly in the shops.
Nomination for the prize or even receiving it, is likewise not a ticket to stardom — in many cases, more like an invitation to file under “Where are they now?” In fact, as a general rule, the only bands or artists who come out unscathed are those who are already established, with a solid track record. Others have disappeared into the pages of music history without raising a ripple. I won’t give you a list because you won’t remember them.
I’ve deliberately avoided using the word “win” in relation to the prize, because you don’t “win” it. You win a race by going to the starting line, and struggling to defeat the other competitors. That’s not how the Mercury Prize works. It’s awarded by a panel of judges, on the basis of work that would have been done anyway. It’s like deciding to give a “prize” to Michelangelo for “best sculpture of the last 500 years”. Nice work, Mike. Well done.
And who are these judges? Well, it’s a secret. Only the panel’s chairman is named publicly, and it’s been the same man since the start, Simon Frith, former rock journalist, and now an academic of the sociology of music. Those known to have served as judges include composer Charles Hazelwood, media person Lauren Laverne, BBC R1 executive George Ergatoudis, R3 presenter Robert Sandall, and music writers such as Conor McNicholas (NME) and Jude Rogers (Guardian). I have no problem with such a list and quite happy to accept that the people on it are knowledgeable and ethusiastic about music. But I don’t care much what they think, and I don’t see how they can decide what is the “best” album of the year. It’s a meaningless concept.
I described the award as a “scam”, and I mean it. Think about it — why is the award “prestigious” and “important”? Because they say it is; that’s all. With the sponsorship money behind it to pay for a big event and full-time publicity staff, the prize gets in the news. Lots of press releases. Jounalists love press releases: they save so much hard thinking when you can just paste them verbatim into your articles. (I’ve had my own words in print so many times, and with so many different bylines.)
You know, I can’t even honestly say I’m glad that PJ Harvey was given the Mercury Prize this year. I suppose it’s nice for her, but I actually just don’t care. It’s a non-event. Full of sound and fury, signifying… nothing.